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Dr. Jonathan Ponds speaks at a Board of Education meeting Jan. 20, where he addressed plans to reopen school buildings just days later (Screenshot from online meeting)

By ERIN ROLL and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
erin.roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s schools superintendent publicly shared more details than ever before Wednesday night on his plan to return students to hybrid in-person learning next week — detailing short-term overhauls to decades-old ventilation systems and discussing several planned procedures in depth.

But as dozens of teachers, parents and other community members with a wide range of views on returning students addressed the Montclair Board of Education late into the night, there was a giant question still looming:

What happens if teachers just don’t return on Jan. 25 as planned?

It’s a possibility raised this week, when elementary school teachers failed to come to school buildings as expected for professional development Tuesday — after staffers in the Montclair Education Association instead voted Monday night to stay home and continue working remotely. According to the statewide New Jersey Education Association, no decisions have yet been made about whether or when middle and high school teachers would return.

And so far, the unions haven’t committed to sending teachers to school next week.

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds — in a meeting that saw him defending against some parents’ and teachers accusations the district hasn’t been transparent about its plans, and being bolstered by support from other parents grateful he’s resolved to move ahead — reiterated that the schools were indeed ready to reopen on Jan. 25, and the district was working toward that date.

He said repeatedly he’d continue working and speaking with the MEA to resolve the current disputes.

“It is my responsibility, and I do not take it lightly, to get us moving forward,” Ponds said.

The union also took a share of criticism from some parents who said its insistence over the last week that schools aren’t ready or safe was unfair, misleading or ill-timed. In a statement earlier this week, the MEA criticized the school district for “vague procedures and hybrid building plans,” and said any number of health safety issues were identified during walkthroughs of school buildings.

As currently planned, students in Pre-K through fifth grade are expected to return for a hybrid of in-person and remote education Jan. 25. Students in the three middle schools and Montclair High School are expected to return Feb. 8. The dates were first announced in December, after Ponds himself delayed an earlier plan to return students in November, citing community spread of the novel coronavirus. The MEA has been pointing to a coronavirus rate of transmission — an estimate of how many people each person with the virus infects — that’s comparable to November’s and to growing cases over time in its argument that conditions are no safer now than they were then.

Montclair students have been out of the classroom since the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey in March of last year. Gov. Phil Murphy has said all districts should resume some level of in-person education if they can meet safety standards, but largely left details on implementation to individual school systems.

The plans Ponds discussed Wednesday included details some that parents and teachers said they wish they had weeks ago or longer — or that they’d asked for and never received. Ponds described answering hundreds of prepared questions in recent weeks, but MEA members said those answers never reached their leadership.

School district’s safety plans

According to Ponds’ updates:

Ventilation: A report last fall found Montclair schools have serious ventilation problems, with some rooms having virtually no ventilation at all, and an estimated a cost of $26 million for long-term fixes. But Ponds said the district has purchased 400 air purifiers, at a cost of $400,000. The district is planning to release a spreadsheet detailing where in each of its buildings the purifiers are set up.

In addition, Ponds said, 250 mechanical systems have been repaired and 300 windows have been repaired so they can be fully opened. The district will release a report by consultants EI Associates showing which rooms are now classified “green” or “yellow” for air quality.

Cleaning: The district has purchased cold foggers and thermal foggers, and Green Seal-certified chemicals, and is training staff in their usage, Ponds said. 

Safety measures: Nurses offices will have isolation rooms, Ponds said. Temperature check stations will be at school doors. Staff members will be provided personal protective equipment including minimum of one face shield and two masks, and some will be given more equipment depending on their job duties. Schools will have markers on their floors to encourage social distancing. Aids will be present on buses to maintain social distancing as well.

Ponds, in a recent community bulletin that reaffirmed the Jan. 25 start date, also detailed some other safety measures in place. Students won’t be able to board school buses without masks. Families are required to use an online portal to complete health and wellness checks, as well daily screenings, before returning their children for in-person instruction. The school nurse has prepared guidance on how to respond to potential symptoms. Spectators remain barred from athletic events.

Montclair Local has separately sent the district a list of questions — asking whether desks will have Plexiglas barriers, how hands-on classes like art and science labs will be handled, and what remaining work still needed to be accomplished ahead of Jan. 25. It has not yet received a direct response to that list. Ponds said in a message to Montclair Local the school district buildings meet state standards for health safety.

Meredith Barnes, a spokesperson for the NJEA, said Thursday morning the unions still need to debrief before responding to the new information.

So far, Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller — the NJEA’s vice president, and also the official empowered to appoint school board members under Montclair’s form of government — hasn’t publicly commented on the teachers’ refusal to return earlier this week. Montclair Local has reached out to him Thursday, seeking comment.

A divided response

Many parents criticized the MEA for making the move to have elementary school teachers absent for Tuesday’s in-person professional development day, when parking lots of elementary schools were left empty as staff stayed home.

Some spoke of their own children doing badly, academically and psychologically, in remote learning, and said further delay would cause more harm.

District parent Daryn Sirota, who has a kindergarten-age daughter, said the MEA’s actions were infringing on students’ rights.

Debbie Villareal-Hadley, who is the chair of the Montclair PTA council, said students have been sliding backward since the school buildings have closed. She said  last-minute votes and changes that have taken place right as the schools were scheduled to open have caused unnecessary delays.

Betty Shvetz, who has a fourth-grader in the schools, said she is usually 100 percent behind the teachers, but said she was upset by everything that had happened over the past week.

“There will always be an excuse not to go back,” she said. “You cannot keep dangling dates in front of us and then pulling them away.”

Still others stood by the MEA, and said Ponds needed to do more to engage its many questions. Margie Saraco, a teacher, urged opponents of the MEA’s action to “please stop demonizing us.”

“We can’t return to in person learning until it is safe to do so,” she said.

Several teachers told school officials they haven’t received documentation showing buildings are safe. Syreeta Carrington, a Glenfield teacher and a Restorative Justice teacher on special assignment, said requests by teachers for documentation from the district have often been met with a “how dare you” attitude. 

Ponds told teachers they’ll have the reports.

“What hurts me at times, quite frankly, is the attacks for what people think we’re not doing,” Ponds told one speaker. 

He also addressed criticism from some teachers for cancelling a meeting with the MEA — saying he only did so after learning that morning about a vote its members took the night before, but signaling he wanted to keep working with the union to find a resolution. Montclair Local has reached out to Ponds and the union seeking further information about that cancelled meeting and vote.

“I think everyone is trying to do the best they can, for the kids and for the district,” Kristin Wald, a parent, said.

She said she was concerned about the rhetoric that was being displayed at meetings by the different parties — “And our children hear us,” and that adds to anxiety,” she said.

Wald said a lack of information from the district was leading to a lot of anger directed at the teachers. “These are our neighbors. These are people we see every day. And it’s harmful to all of us.”

This is a developing story.